Ghostly presence of Elliot Daly gives Wasps hope in Leinster examination

Robert Kitson
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Elliot Daly of Wasps breaks through the tackle of Toulouse’s Thierry Dusautoir on his way to scoring a solo try from halfway during their Champions Cup pool match at the Ricoh Arena in January. Wasps won 17-14.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images</span>
Elliot Daly of Wasps breaks through the tackle of Toulouse’s Thierry Dusautoir on his way to scoring a solo try from halfway during their Champions Cup pool match at the Ricoh Arena in January. Wasps won 17-14. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

It says everything about Elliot Daly’s ability that Eddie Jones went to Coventry this week specifically to consult Wasps about how best to utilise it. Jones would not be bothered were Daly just another average Joe or one of the fly-by-night opportunists to whom England once dished out hasty caps. When the Australian goes into flying doctor mode, there is always a very good reason.

To date, it has mattered little what position Daly occupies. He had No11 on his back when he scored the thrilling late try that sunk Wales in Cardiff during the Six Nations and will be at No13 for Saturday’s potentially epic Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster in Dublin. Jones, though, reckons he could be England’s next long-term full-back, hence the trip to the Midlands for talks with the 24-year-old’s club coach, Dai Young.

The debate, just like Daly, looks destined to run and run. It is only a couple of years since Young sat down with England’s then coach Stuart Lancaster to ask where he wanted the fast-rising talent with the big left boot to play. “It’s quite ironic really,” says Young. “We were in the process of recruiting and didn’t want to block Elliot’s pathway. Stuart felt it was best to put him at 13 because he felt there was more competition at 15. Now we’re hearing voices they want to play him at 15.”

For Young, the answer is easy. “We see him as a 13, without a doubt. I don’t see Elliot being the blindside winger for the rest of his career. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is moved around a bit but at some point, I’m sure he’ll want to nail down a spot. He has always expressed to me that he wants to play 13 and feels that’s his best position, but internationally he’ll play anywhere.” So what if Jones asks Wasps to shift him to 15? “He’s not going to have much luck in that, is he?” Young replies. “I seem to remember Eddie went on the record, when Manu Tuilagi was coming back, that he doesn’t pick Leicester’s team and they don’t pick his.” Quite so.

Everyone agrees, though, that England have a maturing match-winner at their disposal. Daly may still go relatively unnoticed on the streets of Leamington Spa, where he now lives, but, as Jones noted in the autumn, the former England schoolboy cricketer is capable of virtually anything. “He’s been one of those guys who has done everything easily. He probably got 50 without blinking, then he’d bowl a few medium pacers, get a couple of wickets and take a diving catch at first slip. When he goes out and plays golf, bang, the ball is 300 yards down the fairway. He’s one of those kids, isn’t he? We’ve all been to school with them.”

What really attracts Jones, however, is Daly’s sporting intelligence. Watch how seldom he makes unnecessary contact with bigger men and how often, instead, he ghosts outside players into space, picks the right angle or pops up in the right place at the right time. If that makes him sound like English rugby’s answer to the All Blacks’ Ben Smith, you can bet Jones has already made the mental connection. “I think Eddie is really pleased with what Elliot brings; his footballing ability and how he gets involved,” says Young.

The man himself is as good at deflecting compliments as he is at lightening the off-field mood for club and country. With England he has established himself as the go-to man for locating the best local coffee shops and, during the Six Nations, even turned his hotel room in Bagshot into a pop-up players’ cafe. “It ended up with quite a few of the boys coming round every day for a coffee. It got everyone together, just relaxing. Ben Te’o was in there every day and was probably the nightmare customer. One day he was in my room without a key. I don’t know how he got in, he was just sitting there waiting.”

The laid-back exterior, however, is deceptive. Even in the family’s back garden in the Surrey suburbs, losing at anything to his brother Miles, four years his senior, was out of the question. “Mentally I always thought I could overcome everything,” he told me a couple of years ago. “I wanted to achieve from day one. I think you’ve got to have that self-belief. My dad says I used to go mental if I lost when I was young. I was throwing stuff and my brother had to let me win all the time. He knew what the consequences would be if he didn’t.”

In his age-group years his surname drew inevitable interest from across the Irish Sea but despite grandparents from County Clare and Galway, he always felt English. Of his 13 senior England games to date, the defeat in Dublin a fortnight ago is his only loss; Wasps have not lost a game he has played in this season aside from Saracens at Allianz Park in October. The red card received for the mistimed early leap against Argentina at Twickenham was a rare aberration; he has only had two yellow cards in the Premiership since his debut as a schoolboy in 2010.

Leinster – now coached by Lancaster – and their talented outside-centre Garry Ringrose should not rely on Wasps stumbling as England did at the Aviva Stadium. “It was wet when we played and we probably could have adapted a little quicker but every game is different,” says Daly. “We lost at Northampton once, went back and beat them by quite a lot. It is a new game, a new day. Knockout rugby is very special, especially in this competition. I think everyone is looking forward to it.”

Should Kurtley Beale, Danny Cipriani, Christian Wade and Daly find any space, it really could be a classic, regardless of where Daly operates. “When I played for England on the wing, Eddie just wanted me to play as a centre, attack-wise, and get my hands on the ball as much as possible. That’s pretty much what I do at 13 anyway. If I said [I’d only play 13] and didn’t get the opportunity to play a Test, I’d rue that for the rest of my life.”

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